Historical Markers
First Steel Rails Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

First Steel Rails

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Opposite steel mill (old PA 56), Johnstown

Dedication Date:
August 1947

Behind the Marker

"Steel rails! Bosh! Stuff! Humbug!"

- Reaction of an official of a Northeastern railroad upon being approached with an offer to sell steel rails in place of iron rails.

Cross-section of 131 pound steel rail
Cross-section of 131 pound steel rail

Introduced by the Montour Iron Works in 1845, shaped markeriron rails were a tremendous improvement over the composite wooden and strap-iron tracks upon which early trains had run. But within twenty years of their introduction, their flaws, too, began to surface, for they were relatively brittle and became unable to bear the weight of trains that were growing heavier, larger, and faster. The need to replace them as often as every three months was not just expensive; it also disrupted business. No trains could run when a railroad had to shut down operations to change worn-out rails, and a track that's out of service is a track that's not earning money. With the stress of even heavier traffic during the Civil War, rails needed even more frequent replacement. Officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) wrote to their stockholders about this trend in 1864:

The rapid destruction of iron under the high speeds and heavy locomotives now used upon railways, has become a subject of serious consideration …. The demands of the public for high speed has compelled the introduction upon all thoroughfares of more powerful engines. These could only be obtained by adding to their dimensions and weight, which has produced its natural result,- great wear and tear of iron rails, and the superstructure of this road. This evil has been still further increased by the inferiority of the rails now manufactured, compared with those placed upon railways when the edge rail was first introduced…

European railroads, the officials noted, were considering adopting rails made either of steel or of a steel-iron combination: "The present high cost of rails made entirely of steel, will probably prevent their general adoption, although the rapid destruction at the termini and stations, where the iron rail in some positions does not last six months, will fully justify their introduction."

The first steel rail in the world was made in England in the mid-1850s, and a trial installation on a railroad was made in 1862. After two years, officials found that it had outlasted the eighteenth replacement of adjoining iron rails.
William Rau photograph of the Cambria Iron Works and Johnstown, 1891. Smoke rises from the stacks of the enormous iron works.
William Rau photograph of the Cambria Iron Works and Johnstown, 1891.

In 1864, the PRR placed an order for an experimental lot of 150 tons of steel rails - the first in America - and hinted that it might build its own steelworks. In 1866, the company announced that it was accelerating its purchases of steel rail despite a price that was double that of iron rails. In time, the PRR helped organize and fund the Pennsylvania Steel Co. At Steelton, Pennsylvania, just south of Harrisburg, that firm built the first plant to be constructed specifically for the production of railroad rails.

The PRR also invested in the Cambria Iron Works at Johnstown, which had rolled its first iron rails in 1854. In 1866, the North Chicago Rolling Mill also produced an experimental steel rail, but it was the Cambria plant in August 1867 that made the first steel rails for commercial production in America. (Ultimately, the PRR sold its interest in both the Cambria and Steelton mills, which came under the control of the Bethlehem Steel Corp.)

By 1873, just ten years after placing its experimental order for 150 tons of steel rail, the PRR was running trains over some 73,542 tons of steel rails. "Probably no other technological development has done so much to increase the capacity of the railroads and reduce their operating costs as this substitution of steel for iron rails," wrote the carrier's historians in its centennial history. "Before it occurred, the permissible wheel loads of locomotives and cars were both definitely limited by the distortion and wear caused in the iron rails." By 1877, PRR's entire New York-to-Chicago double-track main line was laid with steel rail.

The conversion of all of America's railroads to steel rails did not, however, take place so quickly. The invention in England of the Bessemer steel making process gave that nation's mills the edge. Unaccustomed to the process, American makers were slow to adopt the method and made many mistakes when they did.
Men cutting and laying steel rails
Men cutting and laying steel rails

In 1880, only 29 percent of the 115,000 miles of track in America were laid with steel rail. The figure rose to 50 percent of the 200,000 miles of track in 1890 and to 93 percent of the 258,000 miles of track in 1900. From 1872 to 1882, the price of U.S.-produced steel rail dropped from $140 a ton to $35 a ton, and production rocketed from 90,000 tons to 1.5 million tons.

The Bethlehem Steel plants at Steelton, markerJohnstown, and markerBethlehem became noted producers of steel rails, as did the Carnegie Steel Co. plant at Braddock (Edgar Thomson Works). With the collapse of Big Steel in the 1980s, imported rail once again surpassed American-made steel. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, only the Steelton mill - now under the name International Steel Group, Inc. - still made rails in Pennsylvania. Only one other domestic rail producer, located in Colorado, remained in business.

To learn more about Andrew Carnegie's role in the production of steel rails, click markerhere.
Back to Top